Belmont Club

The Infallibles

The Obama administration has been criticized for being unprepared for the crisis in the Ukraine. Recently a former top NATO officer argued it was best not to be caught unprepared again. Stripes reports that “the alliance’s former top officer recommended that NATO take a series of steps, including drawing up contingency plans based on a full Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

 In an essay published Saturday on the Foreign Policy website, retired Adm. James Stavridis said NATO should also put its response force on a higher state of alert.

“Many will consider any level of NATO involvement provocative and potentially inflammatory,” wrote Stavridis, who retired last year as NATO’s supreme allied commander. “Unfortunately, the stakes are high and the Russians are moving. Sitting idle, without at least looking at options, is a mistake for NATO and would itself constitute a signal to Putin — one that he would welcome.”

But others argued that contingency planning or anticipatory deployments were themselves provocative and could send the wrong message.  The best way to stay safe, perhaps, is to remain unprepared.

Other experts, however, said the U.S. should refrain from any actions that could be seen as a military escalation.

“I strongly oppose any military responses, even indirect, to the current situation,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s simply not worth the risk, and not necessary.”

Some commentators felt the safest course is to leave things in the hands of president Obama since to cast doubts on his leadership now would be to play into the hands of Vladimir Putin. CNN’s Sally Kohn made precisely this point on her show Crossfire:

On Crossfire Monday, host Sally Kohn took on Republicans for “hurting America’s standing in the world” by “systematically undermining” President Barack Obama’s policy on the crisis in Ukraine. She found a sparring partner in the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka, who defended the conservative criticism of the president. …

Republicans are practically cheering for Vladimir Putin today,” Kohn said at the top of the show’s second segment. “He’s given them a new excuse to bash President Obama.” She went on to describe how Republicans are all over the media arguing that Putin would not be trying to invade Ukraine if Obama was not such a “weak leader.”

Better to grit our teeth and hope for it works out. Besides, we are doubtless in the best of hands. Andrew Sullivan argued that president Obama understood what rabid Republicans could not, with their limited intelligence, comprehend: that the best course of action was to yield to Putin’s demands.  And Obama of course, was doing just that.

How to deal with an authoritarian leader, increasingly paranoid about the West, his greater regional aspirations turned to dust, who is now wielding military power in a manner more reminiscent of the Cold War than of anything since? One obvious response is counter-provocation, of the kind that John McCain and the Washington Post editorial board would instinctively prefer. It seems to me that, given how Putin has reacted to Western pressure so far, this would merely invite more recklessness.

The saner approach is to try and mollify some of Russia’s legitimate concerns about Ukraine – the rights of the pro-Russian Ukrainians in the East, for example, some of which were suspended (and now restored) by the new Kiev government, while persuading him of unstated but profoundly adverse consequences if he ratchets up the use of force even further. David Ignatius – unlike the breathless neocons on the WaPo editorial page – makes the case very effectively this morning. What our goal must be now, above everything, is avoiding any pretext for a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine.

It’s not the first time Sullivan made this argument. Jonathan Tobin at the Daily Commentary noticed that he made essentially the same argument in regard to Syria.

Most liberals are trying to pretend the president’s acceptance of Russia’s bogus offer to negotiate the surrender of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile is a sign of U.S. strength, or at least offers the possibility of a diplomatic escape from a conflict in Syria few Americans want any part of. But such transparent deceptions and spin are not for the proprietor of the Daily Dish. Instead, Sullivan believes Obama’s surrender of American influence in the Middle East is actually a good thing. Rather than pretending that Putin’s end zone dance in the New York Times yesterday was meaningless, he thinks the Russian authoritarian’s triumphant mood is good for American national interests and bad for those of Russia….

Sullivan says a situation that he concedes looks like “national humiliation” for the U.S. is “good” because it avoids American involvement in more wars or even having responsibility for anything that happens there. … The writer thinks the Middle East should be lost. Putin is, he says, welcome to it, something that would allow the U.S. to concentrate on Asia and “entrenching universal healthcare” at home.

Bookworm Room points out this argument essentially amounts to saying ‘we are winning but the Republicans are just too dumb to know’.   Obama, being brilliant of course, is secretly aware of surrounding the foe.  By and by he will draw the noose and all will be well.

According to Sullivan, everything we think we know about Obama’s apparently feckless Syria policy is wrong. Sullivan is willing to concede that Obama was careless when, a year ago, he mentioned a “red line” about Syria. Once Obama had done that, however, Sullivan assures us that Obama instantly knew that he had the perfect bait with which to hook his fish.

In Sullivan’s world, Obama wasn’t flailing when he said that he intended, on his own executive initiative, to bomb Syria. He wasn’t being a rank amateur when he announced the intended date, time, and location of his “muscular,” yet delicate, attack.

Obama wasn’t backtracking when he abruptly announced that, despite the urgent need to bomb Syria, he would wait until Congress convened, deliberated, and voted on an attack. Obama also wasn’t prevaricating (some might say “lying”) when he explained that he hadn’t drawn a red line; the world had drawn a red line, and he was simply helping the world enforce it.

Likewise, Obama wasn’t guilty of rank hiring malpractice when he put before the world a Secretary of State who announced that any US attack against Syria would be so infinitesimally small that a toddler could withstand its impact. That same potential malpractice was inapplicable when that same Secretary of State remarked, to the administration’s explicitly expressed surprise, that Bashar al Assad could make everything good by turning over his weapons which, said Secretary of State hastened to add, could never actually be done.

One might object that this amounts to religion — blind faith — and not to public policy. Obama seems content to play the god. Today he admonished Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to move forward on talks with the Palestinians, warning that time was running out on Israel to avail of the opportunity to sign on to the peace process John Kerry has so carefully crafted. Obama, as if to reassure Netanyahu of his doubts, affirmed his “absolute commitment that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”

To his credit Obama cannily avoided using the phrase ‘Red Line’.

In fairness, the administration really has no choice but to keep pretending they have been succeeding all along; that the next step is as sure and deft as all the ones preceding. No guide wants to admit to paying customers that he is lost. For to point out now that the glittering triumphs they have been publicly touting all these months — the disarmament policy with Russia, the Syrian chemical weapons agreement, the Iranian nuclear accord, the northern logistical route through Russian territory to supply NATO in Afghanistan — Afghanistan itself — are paste; no more than masterpieces of gold painted wire set with gems cut out of the bottom of a glass instead of gold rings surmounted by precious diamonds would be instantly fatal to his political prestige.

It is possible for a politician to admit to occasional error. But no one can expect president Obama to admit he has been throughly, completely and comprehensively swindled by Vladimir Putin — though he has. It is too much to ask of any high official to admit he’s been a vainglorious ass.  Some dignity must still be preserved. And Netanyahu let him have a shred,  for he politely listened while Obama waxed lyrical on the advantages of the fake 72 jewel Palestinian Rolex which the president offered the Israeli, before replying rather mildly that he wanted “not a piece of paper but real peace, Mr. President.”

Perhaps the president has now climbed so high on the fantasy tree that even to look down would be dangerously dizzying.  Someone  needs to give him a climbdown strategy, lend him a hand, provide some face-saving device to help get off the the tree now teetering over the lip of the precipice. And as for preparing for the worst in case if Putin is, as Angela Merkel observed, was not quite right in the head, well yes, that’s a good idea.

Now to convince Obama that it’s his idea.

Unless anyone believes president Obama will resign or be impeached then the sole remaining alternative is to convince the administration to change course. You cannot expect him to publicly eat crow, don sackcloth and ashes and grovel in the dirt.

He won’t admit to error. For one his pride is too great. For another it would be political disaster. Hence the president needs an acceptable way to change course as if he thought of it.  Call it “The New Realism”, “Militant Democracy” or something. In point of fact this is how agendas are marketed in bureaucracies. It is not enough to be right. Being right is easy. It is selling common sense in an environment of lunacy that is hard.

We should do it to salvage the peace. Now is not the time to stand on ceremony. Let him salve his vanity, but only do the right thing.


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